This isn't merely wearing sunglasses while acting. It's an acting technique all Cate's own.

By Ari Saperstein
Updated Apr 14, 2020 @ 3:30 pm
Advertisement
Photo Illustration/InStyle.com, Images: Getty Images, Shutterstock, Annapurna Pictures, Warner Bros, MGM

We all know that sunglasses protect from more than just UVs. They can be used to cover up tear-stained eyes, or look slightly less hungover at brunch. Further, not making eye contact can make you seem intimidating and detached; hiding your eyes makes you hard to read (it’s the reason professional poker players wear shades). All these factors combined have contributed to sunglasses becoming the ultimate accessory of a movie star.

Off-screen, sunglasses are celebrities’ go-to tool for anonymity in public spaces and privacy from the paparazzi. On-screen, their function can range from a simple prop to the centerpiece of a character’s whole look (see The Matrix, Men In Black, Risky Business, and Blues Brothers for proof they’ve cemented a place in pop culture). In the book Cool Shades: The History and Meaning of Sunglasses, author Vanessa Brown says that sunglasses are “a sign of some powerful, elusive, desirable quality.” Indeed, sunglasses often get type-cast to make people look cool. But if you think of that kind of application of shades as Sunglasses Acting 101, there’s one actor who has come to challenge this convention, using shades to deliver dynamic, nuanced performances like none other: Cate Blanchett.

In her 25 years gracing the silver screen, Blanchett has won two Oscars and garnered critical acclaim for her chameleon-like ability to transform into characters ranging from Bob Dylan to Katherine Hepburn — and she did it all while wearing sunglasses. Not only has Blanchett sported a wide array of eyewear throughout her career — big and small! Polarized and mirrored! — she can be seen protecting herself from UV rays on no less than five different movie posters. Spot her glaring over a violet-tinted pair in Mrs. America portraying Phyllis Schlafly, the real-life housewife hellbent on ending the ERA turned streaming supervillain when it premiers on FX on April 15.

In Blue Jasmine, Blanchett hides behind sunglasses to avoid revealing her fragile mental state. In I’m Not There, she mimics the exact mannerism of the real-life figure she's portraying. The way most actors might lean on an outfit or makeup to outwardly embody a character, time and time again Blanchett opts for eyewear. For her and her alone, they’re like a talisman for conjuring Oscar nominations.

Below, a look back at some of Blanchett's best on-screen eyewear and exactly how she used it to create a technique we're calling Sunglasses Acting, and then single-handedly elevate it to an art.

MGM

Bandits (2001)

Bandits marks the first of Cate Blanchett’s “Women In Sunglasses On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown” trilogy (the later installments being Blue Jasmine and Where’d You Go Bernadette). Unfortunately, her character in Bandits feels like a weaker prototype of something she’d go on to perfect in those films. She plays a woman torn between the irresistible charms of Billy Bob Thorton and Bruce Willis, both 15 years her senior (yes, this movie was written by a man). She’s given pretty bad props to work with, including too-heavy eye makeup and a messy red wig (it’s red because she’s fiery and unstable! Subtle!). On the flip side, though, Bandits certainly wins for the most amount of sunglasses on this list. Blanchett gets to wear half a dozen pairs, from Wayfarers to Aviators, round frames to ovals, and beyond. Using that collection, we see young Cate develop the foundation of “sunglasses acting”: her character, having left her life as a bored housewife behind, goes on the run with a pair of outlaws, trying on new personalities just as she switches into new shades. Yes, she uses sunglasses to hide her identity during heists  — but they’re also revealing who she is along the way.

Blanchett earned a SAG nomination for her role, and another for Lord of the Rings the same year, cementing her place in future awards seasons with the likes of Meryl Streep as an “Oh you made a movie this year? Here’s a nomination” kind of actor.

Moviestore/Shutterstock

Heaven (2002)

In one of her quietest and most stripped-down performances to date, Blanchett plays a teacher living in Italy plotting revenge on a local drug dealer. The opening sequence follows Blanchett en route to the kingpin’s office to do the deed. She wears sunglasses like a spy on a secret mission, looking determined and precise in her movements. But almost immediately, it’s evident that something's off. Distracted, she almost gets hit by a car while crossing the street, giving us our first hint that maybe she’s not the effortlessly cool assassin she looks to be. Then, her plan massively backfires, and we see her as a regular person playing dress-up, who bit off more than she could chew, but that's not clear for much of the first act. With the window to her soul obscured by her shades, the viewer’s sense of her morality remains in limbo. Only in the following scenes, during a police interrogation where they tell her about bystanders who died because of her mistake, do we finally see her eyes and realize they’re full of shame, anger, and devastation. She’s a good person who accidentally did a bad thing. And, she’s a very good sunglasses actor.

Warner Bros.

The Aviator (2004)

Let’s start off by addressing the elephant in the room: No, Blanchett does not wear Aviators in The Aviator, and yes, it does feel like a missed opportunity.

In Scorcese’s Howard Hughes biopic, Blanchett plays Katherine Hepburn as she navigates a turbulent romantic relationship with Hughes (puns intended). She only wears sunglasses in one scene, but it’s a key moment in her Oscar-winning performance: As she considers ending her relationship with Hughes, Hepburn, forlorn, stares out a car window. A charming and lively figure throughout the film, she appears downcast for the first time. Earlier in the movie, Hepburn warns Hughes about the price of fame. “We have to be careful not to let too many people in,” she says. Now, hiding behind her sunglasses, it seems that Hughes might be someone Hepburn is done letting in.

She doesn’t feel respected by Hughes, who openly flaunts his liaisons with all her acting contemporaries. Despite our inability to see her gaze behind the shades, Blanchett telegraphs the question going through her mind: Will she compromise for a man and let him overshadow her bright spirit? Stepping out of the car and onto a studio lot, we see her remove the shades and know what choice she’s made. Best of all, she finds a different kind of man waiting for her on set, one who wants her to be her (glasses-free) self: Spencer Tracy. That’s some tour-de-force sunglasses acting.

GABRIEL BOUYS/Getty Images

I'm Not There (2007)

In one of most ingenious pieces of casting ever, Cate Blanchett plays Bob Dylan (technically, a near-identical Dylan stand-in named “Jude Quinn”) in the impressionistic biopic I’m Not There.

She’s one of six actors playing Dylan-esque characters in the film and outshines them all in what should’ve been her second Oscar-winning performance (she lost to fellow chameleon Tilda Swinton that year). The Blanchett section of the movie takes inspiration from the iconic 1967 music documentary Don't Look Back. If you watch the two flicks back-to-back, it’s remarkable to see Blanchett so perfectly match Dylan’s grumbling and mumbling, and her physicality mirror his lean and lithe body. As a person who rejected norms and whose appearance didn’t adhere to traditional ideas of masculinity, Dylan makes an ideal subject for gender-swapped casting.

The curly wig and tailored jacket help push the performance from impression to embodiment. But when she puts on sunglasses, it marks the moment Blanchett ends and Dylan begins. Even the way she takes off her shades — crouched over, head down, using both hands for an act that only requires one — is quintessential Dylan.

Blanchett wears the musician’s iconic Ray Bans with cool detachment. The character wants to be viewed as impenetrable and mysterious behind his dark lenses. It’s not that he feels misunderstood by the public —  it’s that he doesn’t want to be understood. Blanchett captures this dichotomy in her portrayal. By being an enigma, she’s recognizably “Dylan.”

Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros Pictures/Kobal/Shutterstock

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

A secondary theme running through this article is that Hollywood loves to make Blanchett a redhead, to varying degrees of success. Spoiler: It’s not great in Benjamin Button. The movie suffers from Atonement syndrome, i.e. casting three women to play the same character at different ages who don’t really look alike, except for having been given the same hairdo (here, it’s Blanchett, Madisen Beaty, and Elle Fanning all done up in red). Contrasted against the aging CGI wizardry treatment Brad Pitt receives, it’s not a great look for Blanchett and her character, Daisy. Literally.

Safe to say, Blanchett could’ve used some better props — which brings us to the sunglasses. Her shades have a small but pivotal role, in a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo. Near the end of the movie, Benjamin, aging in reverse, finally becomes the same age as his love interest, Daisy. They take a motorcycle ride to see the sunset, both adorned in sunglasses. For one fleeting instance, she's in sync with Benjamin — in age, in love, and in style. She knows that her relationship with Benjamin can’t last, but she still chooses to embrace the moment. The glasses might make what's ahead look darker, but she seems OK with whatever the future holds. To quote the film, their matching eyewear is the ultimate symbol of them “meeting in the middle.” (Worth noting, though, that in real life, it is Blanchett who appears to be aging in reverse.)

Gravier Prods/Perdido Productions/Kobal/Shutterstock

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Sally Hawkins was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in this film, but the nom really should’ve gone to Blanchett’s sunglasses. Playing a former Manhattan socialite who lost everything (including, as it started to become clear, her sanity), nearly every shot in Blue Jasmine features Blanchett with sunglasses on or with shades tucked up into her blond coif. That motif really pays off when it comes to the last shot of the movie: Having lost everything, Jasmine finds herself wandering through a park, talking to herself in a manic state, wearing the same outfit she did in the opening shot — sans sunglasses. She takes a seat next to a sunglasses-clad woman, the embodiment of the person she used to be. The woman, disturbed by Jasmine, gets up to leave. The film ends on Jasmine, her bare eyes blinking into the sun, with nothing to hide behind.

Moviestore/Shutterstock

Carol (2015)

As the titular character, Blanchett plays a lesbian in 1950s New York City trying to woo Therese (Rooney Mara), a young saleswoman. Therese is intoxicated by Carol’s poise and glamour, and understandably so: Throughout Carol, Blanchett is always dressed to the nines in a menagerie of berets, headscarves, leather gloves, brooches, furs and, of course, sunglasses. Though her shades are just one part of the wardrobe, they’re nonetheless an important supporting character in the story told by Carol’s outfits. The film’s costume designer Sandy Powell told InStyle back in 2015 that the vintage cat-eye sunglasses were a key part of making Blanchett look convincingly era-appropriate.

As glamorous as Carol is, the meaning behind her lenses is deeply human: We all dress to impress our crushes. More so, Carol dresses to flaunt her power, as someone who both pursues and withholds from Therese. To the shy and awkward Therese, it’s clear that Carol is everything she’s not.

In this role, the sunglasses aren’t part of a facade. Carol is a fashionista at her core. Her true self isn’t the apron-wearing suburbanite we see later in the film; it’s the version who puts her best face forward — a face with sunglasses.

Raymond Hall/Getty Images

Ocean's 8 (2018)

Truth be told, Ocean’s 8 doesn’t give Blanchett much to do. Even when it comes to the film’s eyewear game, Helena Bonham Carter overshadows Blanchett, donning flower-studded shades and, at one point, sports two pairs of glasses simultaneously.

What Blanchett does get to do, though, is use sunglasses for an entirely different purpose: humor!

In the heist flick’s broadest piece of comedy, the Blanchett and Sandra Bullock characters try to distract Bonham Carter's. They appear out of nowhere in a window, staring at her through their sunglasses. The next time Bonham Carter looks back at the duo, they blast handheld bubble blowers. OK, so it’s not the wittiest gag, but in that moment we get to see Blanchett have fun by contrasting her biker-chic look with a very silly action. Sunglasses, of course, are key to the juxtaposition.

And, yes, I did structure this list so that Ocean’s 8 would be number 8.

Annapurna Pictures

Where'd You Go, Bernadette (2019)

Not only is this another example of a Blanchett flick with a sunglasses-themed poster, but it's a film whose entire marketing campaign was built around a pair of oversized round shades. (Fun fact: The sunglasses Blanchett wears in the film — a now-discontinued style by Barton Perriera — were the actual ones that inspired the book’s cover, belonging to the novel’s author Maria Semple).

Bernadette, a loner with disdain for her snobby Seattle neighbors, expresses her contempt by lowering her sunglasses to deliver “are you kidding” glares. We get to see Cate have a good time — but not even Blanchett’s wry sunglasses acting could save this troubled production (chock full of rewrites, reshoots and delayed release dates) from critical and box office failure.

Nonetheless, the movie features Blanchett’s most subtle use of sunglasses to tell a story: The movie centers around the question of Bernadette’s mental health — her husband and neighbors think she’s unstable; Bernadette thinks everyone else is acting out of whack. To me, the greatest evidence of her possibly waning stability was the decision to wear those low UV-filtering glasses in the Arctic, a place where you really need to have a category 4 lens for higher protection from the glacial glare. Well played, Blanchett. Well played.